Our own Ben Lilly won the 4.5 National Championship with his team out of Highland High School. Here is his report from the event.
Going in to nationals I felt we had a pretty good chance, all our guys we coming, we had three strong singles players, and our doubles players seemed to be playing well and in good health. I love numbers and I was worried a little about @schmke preview that we were not one of the top four teams but this is an inexact science with a ton of variables, so I was still pretty hopeful about our chances.
We get there and it is beautiful weather, but we know that the forecast is not great. So the captains meeting happens and they seem to have little to no plan for rain. They literally said the plan was to hope it did not rain, so that indicated a lack of back up plan. That being said they were quick to change the format, to try to get matches in before it rained on Friday. Sets to 4, win by one, 7 point tiebreak instead of the 10. Shortens it but not by that much, seemed good.
First match, going in they seemed good but not one of the best teams in our “flight” (but really hard to know), I was a little worried about them since they dominated their sectional only losing one court (out of 20 courts). This was very early in the morning before the sun rose, so we were playing under the lights to start. So the lineup is announced, and I go to give them the wristbands that they tell us to exchange and he takes them and puts them on an open table saying “I don’t want this s***”, so I am triggered right there. I don’t want it either but jeez just take it and put it in your bag or something. It is the first match at nationals so I am already fired up, but this gets me to another level. We get out there and just dominate them, winning 4-1, 4-1. We go to shake hands and I say “Nice match, I really like your shoes what are they?” No response, just shakes my hand and goes to his bag. Odd, but he did not play well so he was pretty frustrated I guess. We are up in this match 4-0 and watching our singles match and it is late in the second set(like 3-2, that counts as late in this format) and the guy from the other team calls a ball out that lands in the middle of the court (like near the T of the service line). I guess he thought our guy was cheating him but did not see the build up to this. That guy ended up winning that match in the tiebreak without too much excitement after the official came and watched. 4-1 to start 1-0.
1-0: Next match we are at the other site, going against what we estimate to be the best team in our “flight”. There are rain delays and lots of squeegeeing of courts before we finally get on court. We go out to play and the warm up is very strange. I thought my guy was terrible, I tell my partner, “this guy is sandbagging the warm up.” He seems like a 3.5 during the warmup, like any moderately hard shot I hit to him he missed so I started hitting slower like I would for a newer player. However, this is nationals so he can’t be a 3.5 so I focus because I don’t want to be thinking they are bad because of a weird warmup. My partners warmup was less than inspiring as well, so we were very wary going in and were right to be, they were very tough, my guy had a great forehand and lobbed his backhand really well. We had to go indoors after we won the first set with one break (4-1 I think) and were tied 1-1 in the second with them serving (so they were basically up a break since it was win by one). We start indoors and have a tough couple of games but get to 3-3 with them serving. Fortunately, the guy serving hit some of the tightest shots I have seen and we got the break and the match for another 4-1 team win.
2-0: We closed the day at 2-0 but Saturday looking like it would rain all day. So we are told early sat that instead of 9am in the morning we will play at 6pm indoors and the format will be even shorter: One set to 4, no add, tiebreak at 4-4. We go and play and win 3 out of 4 deciding points and win 4-1. Switch those three points around and we lose, very odd way to play a match at nationals, as the team we played was very good but unlucky. Again the team wins 4-1.
3-0: So our tiebreakers look good and we start discussing if it is possible that we are locked in to 4th at least (we are not, not even close), but we do have favorable tiebreakers and unless we lose 0-5 or 1-4 and a few other teams win 5-0 or 4-1 then we are looking good. We are hoping to sit some of our guys to get in others that have come on the trip but not played as much. In the end, we ended up playing our main lineup because the other team was 3-0 as well and up to this point our opponents record was a clean 0-8 (one match still had not finished that round), so we felt it was possible get beaten 5-0 if things went poorly. So they start the match with both singles, they have given us 2 courts to play all our matches on. We win first singles 4-2 and lose second 4-0. We see our first double team go down 2-0 so we are pretty sure we have to win to win the match. We go out to a very dimly lit court, also very fast court, and we playing tough tennis but they break me to go up 3-1. We hold to make it 3-2 them serving. We play some great points to get a break point at 30-40 to me and he hits a soft serve to my forehand, which I crush…. into the net. That gives us a deciding point that I want but that easy miss is fresh in my mind and my partner says he wants it. He takes the return and crushes a backhand that they can’t pick up to bring it back to 3-3. We go on to win the next two games to win 5-3. Meanwhile our 1st doubles team had come back and won and we ended up winning 4-1 again. I felt a little bad since this team was very nice and we just knocked them out but we came to win so sorry.
4-0: We are locked for the semis but it is very late and we don’t know our opponents when we leave the site. We get back to where we were staying at 2:30am and get the update that we are playing at 7:30 the next day, full scoring (!!! actual tennis, what? !!!). We wind down eventually but don’t get much sleep (neither did any team so this was a level playing field, but it was hard). We get the news that we are playing SoCal, the team that @schmke had as the favorites to win before the event, so I know it is going to be tough. My partner and I play these two guys that are really solid and we are not playing real well. This team did not give any easy points and whenever we came close to breaking away they would hit some great shots. The one guy had the best first volleys we have seen and the other stayed back when he served and ripped backhands neutralizing our strength of return of serves. They beat us 6-4 in the first and were up 5-0 in the second when we started a come back to 4-5 on serve, but then they broke us to finish us off. Luckily in the middle of the second set (1-5 I believe) our guys indicated we won the match with 3 other courts winning. This is my first loss at nationals in doubles over 4 trips (15-1 total), so it hurt but it felt great to have the team pick us up and put us in the national finals.
5-0: We are playing Texas for the national championship and we put out the same lineup as the semis, just shifting some positions so they can’t match up with any specific team. We start out well, but the other team is not playing well, they missed at least four easy putaways and a couple more medium putaways to give us the first set 6-2. We stay focused and win the second set with solid tennis and them not playing their best to put us up 2-0 in the match. We then go watch as our 2nd singles win to give us the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.
6-0: I was so excited and relieved as this was something I have worked toward since I was a singles player on my dad’s team in 2003. We played well and I really want to thank the captain for all he did to recruit a lot of guys that got us to win. He let me help pick the lineups as well and really was just an outstanding captain. This was his first year captaining the team and so I am not sure what he will do when his team loses as we never did. I am sure that I will get bumped to 5.0 and I look forward to playing that in the near future, but I am going to take a break and revel in accomplishing one of my life goals. Thank you for reading and I wish I had more time out there to talk with other people out in Arlington.